It’s been a few months since I’ve written, but I just had to come up for air to share some exciting news with you: Michael Feinstein has invited me to join the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project team as Editor, for The Judy Garland Heirs Trust. As part of this project to preserve Judy Garland’s musical legacy, our aim is to restore all of the original symphonic arrangements from the 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert and make them available for live performance once again. Since late last summer I have been restoring and performing a handful of Judy’s original arrangements that the Trust, of which Michael Feinstein is a trustee, very graciously shared with me. But to get the chance to work on a preservation project like this is so exciting that I still have to stop and pinch myself. (And then I look at the long road ahead and it sobers me up in a hurry, but I digress…)Read More
“And all around me I hear voices that I can’t ignore,
The voices of the stars who played the Palace long before.
The stars who entertained you until the rafters rang —
You don’t need their names, for the whole world acclaims them
For the wonderful songs they sang…”
~Roger Edens, introduction to the "Judy at the Palace Medley"
As someone who spends a lot of her time listening to voices emerging from scratchy recordings and then trying to inhabit them, these lines were insistently reaching out to me every time I got to this point in Judy Garland's recording of her "Judy at the Palace Medley." It was some time back in the autumn of 2015, and I was trying to decide which tune to add next to my Garland repertoire — either to the second half of my Symphonic Pops concert or to my nascent cabaret show. I'd been “auditioning” a lot of numbers from her many post-1950 recordings, but this one was having the same dramatic effect on me every time I heard it...
…And I was resisting it tooth and nail. Despite feeling an undeniable connection to it, there was the very real worry that a nearly-seven-minute song about long-gone Vaudevillians wouldn’t play to a 21st-century audience. As my husband said, it’s one thing when you’re Judy Garland, and quite another when you’re not! And, of course, when Judy revived Vaudeville for a record-smashing 19-week run at the Palace Theatre in 1951, the audience would have remembered all of the originators of the songs in the medley as clearly as today’s audiences would remember Michael Jackson and Madonna — in fact, some of those Vaudevillians were still very much alive and sitting in the theater on opening night listening to her sing about them.Read More
During the past five months I’ve been on a very steep learning curve — actually, more like something involving tornadoes and the yellow brick road — but on January 21st I’m going to get to share with 2000 people some of the results of the arduous journey: I’m going to get to sing two of Judy Garland’s original arrangements onstage with a symphony orchestra.
Of course, I’ve been singing Judy’s tunes with orchestras for a few years now, in wonderful arrangements based on the originals by two terrific arrangers (see an earlier post, "Getting Happy"). But for someone like me who loves time travel and Judy, suddenly having access to the actual note-for-note arrangements that we’ve all heard on her albums was an incredible stroke of good fortune that I’d never even allowed myself to hope for.
Here’s how it happened:Read More
Here's "The Trolley Song," which opened "Get Happy! Judy Garland 1944-'54" at Feinstein’s/54 Below in June. It's the first time we performed this arrangement, based on Judy's first known public performance of the song with Johnny Green at the piano in 1944. It's the only time I ever heard her sing the chorus part, and there are special lyrics to make it fit.
While I was performing in The Boy From Oz in Naples last winter, I got a call from the Bemus Bay Pops asking whether I would be interested in doing the Garland portion of a Frank Sinatra & Judy Garland symphonic pops concert. How very interesting, I thought, because although there are only a handful of recorded Frank and Judy duets, they had performed together regularly on wartime radio programs, then decades later on a 1962 television special along with Dean Martin — and for my money, they were the two finest pop singers of the 20th century. Moreover, they were close friends for nearly three decades — a friendship that also included two brief romantic affairs: in 1949 while Judy was still married to Vincente Minnelli, and in 1955, while she was briefly separated from Sid Luft and Frank’s marriage to Ava Gardner was on the skids.
But perhaps most interesting and not widely known, is that Judy and Frank were members of the original “Rat Pack,” a social group of fun-loving, hard-drinking night owls who would convene at the home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the tony Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles.Read More
Last March, Mark and I were perched on the comfy bar chairs in the WCLV Ideastream studio waiting for our interview to promote the premiere of Get Happy! Judy Garland 1944-’54. Just before we went on-the-air, the host, Bill O’Connell, asked me whether Judy Garland’s singing technique was healthy. I replied, “Yes, but she wasn’t always healthy.” Then I had to add that her technique is very efficient, but also very athletic — so, essentially, “Don’t Try This At Home!” Just like you wouldn’t want to try to run a marathon without significant training and practice, you also wouldn’t want to try to sing the Carnegie Hall Concert at full tilt without thousands of hours of training and conditioning.Read More
One of the things I love the most about getting to sing music of the MGM-era is that I get to wear clothes that suggest — and sometimes more than suggest — the era. I figure my upcoming NYC cabaret debut with a show about Judy Garland circa 1944-1954 calls for very specific costuming; however, I've learned the hard way that going vintage can end up with your mother asking you why you're wearing that schmatta. So, when we put together our first Garland theatrical radio show in 2009 (Love Finds Judy Garland), I took the plunge and ordered an actual vintage pattern, picked out the exact color of sky-blue silk chiffon that I'd seen in my mind's eye, and had it made to fit.Read More
I feel just like Judy in the above picture, except in my case, the stacks of dishes are musical arrangements. I returned home from performances in Naples three weeks ago with a dozen arrangements still to finish for my new cabaret show, Get Happy! Judy Garland 1944-’54, which gets its first airing on April 1st. So I just spent my entire spring break from the Cleveland Institute of Music chained to my piano and running on Aeropress coffee and bonbons. You know you’ve been working too hard when a visit to the BMV to renew your expired driver’s license seems like a holiday...Read More
I was in Naples, Florida for nearly a month but, to quote the character of Judy Garland in The Boy From Oz when Peter Allen comments that she must be rested after her 15-hour coma, "It wasn't a holiday!" Getting a musical up on its feet in nine rehearsals is no mean feat, so a good bit of my "off" time was spent practicing whatever choreography, blocking, or harmony parts I'd been assigned and continuing to explore my circa-1964 Judy characterization and approach to the songs in the show — which were challenging because Judy never actually sang them.Read More
If you’ve tuned-in to this blog lately, you will know that I’m preparing to play the role of “Judy Garland,” circa 1964, in The Boy From Oz at TheatreZone in Naples, Florida. You’d have to ask director Mark Danni, but I believe the rights only recently became available in the U.S. again, so this will be among the first regional productions since the 2003 Broadway smash starring Hugh Jackman as Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen.
Peter Allen, of course, became Judy’s opening act for a time in the mid-‘60s after they met in Hong Kong, and married her daughter, Liza Minelli. My role in this production is therefore very much a supporting one, as I will have passed over the rainbow before the end of Act I; Broadway veteran Larry Alexander will be doing the heavy lifting as Peter. Nonetheless, I’m finding the role preparation quite an absorbing challenge (see “Becoming Judy Garland”).Read More
The first three reviews of “Retrophonic Gershwin” have been posted just in the last two weeks — a “’S wonderful” antidote to our bleak-midwinter blues. I am doubly grateful that the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, since we are hardly old hands at the whole recording process. As I detailed in a previous blog post, the album took over three years from first recording session to the finished CDs’ arrival in a big box on our doorstep, and that doesn’t include the many months of researching and choosing, then arranging and transcribing the music, or the time spent in pre-production. I certainly learned a lot, and when I’ve recovered enough (or, like in childbirth, forgotten the pain of labor) to think about a next album, there are certainly things I’d do differently, starting with making sure that I’m isolated in a booth and not in the same room with the piano behemoths. It’s also unlikely we’ll do another CD with duo-pianos, as the logistics were very difficult here in Cleveland, from rehearsal to recording — although those Steinways in the Oberlin studio did end up sounding gorgeous, so I’m glad we did it once!
Here are a few of the highlights, with links to the full reviews:
“Though she’s no Miniver Cheevy, soprano Joan Ellison is fond of revisiting what many regard as the golden age of popular song. Her live show, “Gershwin on the Radio,” and her new CD, Retrophonic Gershwin, take her fans back to what she calls in her album notes “a more glamorous age than ours…”
Thus Retrophonic Gershwin draws on the content and vocal stylings preserved on vintage recordings, “everything from inspiration to note-for-note transcriptions,” but also enjoys the state-of-the-art studio amenities of Clonick Hall at Oberlin….
Ellison’s partners-in-time-travel are vocalist Mark Flanders and duo-pianists Jason Aquila and Jodie Ricci, who collectively channel the spirit and style of such Gershwin landmarks as “I Got Rhythm,” “A Foggy Day,” and “The Man I Love” in a twelve-track performance that’s on the short side in duration …but packs in a lot of fine singing and piano playing. The songs may be retro, but Ellison and Flanders make them sound fresh and new.”
— Daniel Hathaway, ClevelandClassical.comRead More
It's six weeks until rehearsals begin for The Boy From Oz and nine weeks until our Love Finds Judy Garland performance, so at the Ellison-Flanders household it's All-Garland, All-the-Time. Other than some time out for cookie-baking, which I will only be able to taste very sparingly (because do you recall how thin Judy was in 1964?), that's going to be number one on the to-do list until we leave for Naples.
After an initial few readings of the Boy From Oz script and songs, I've deliberately held back from touching cracking them open again until I immersed myself in Judy's biographies, memoirs, recordings, interviews, and television shows from the period of the show: mid-1964, just after her Australian tour, until her death in 1969 at the age of 47. But now I'm beginning to get that familiar feeling of a character starting to take residence in my body, so I think it's going to be time to start letting her out this week, at least on a short leash. (This is likely to scare my husband.) Since there are only nine rehearsal days to put the show on its feet, lines and songs need to be memorized before our first rehearsal, research needs to be finished, and the basic physicalization and voice need to be habitual enough that it's not taking all of my attention any more.Read More
By this time, it should go without saying that I am a lifelong card-carrying Judy Garland fan. But until fairly recently, I’d shied away from “Judy the Icon” — Judy post-Hollywood, even (mostly) Judy post-1944. I was always more drawn to the sweetness and vulnerability, the sunniness and unspoiled humor she brought to her film roles, recordings, and radio broadcasts circa 1936-1944, and found the later recordings and appearances I’d randomly run across brittle, edgy, and somehow off-putting and disturbing. Perhaps I just wanted her to stay Dorothy and Betsy Booth forever. And I’d heard a few recordings over the years in which she clearly had laryngitis, so I’d made the completely erroneous extrapolation (reinforced by some biographers and playwrights, I’m sorry to say) that it was all downhill, when in reality it just varied depending on her health and the tour or shooting schedule.Read More
41 different songs (plus some bits and pieces)
9000 people in the audiences (give or take a couple of thousand)
96 lines of memorized patter
62 pages of script
2 duo-piano accompaniments I had to play
3 actual dressing rooms
2 elephants...and lions, tigers, and bears
...Oh, My! And here I thought I was going to have time to chalk-paint my dining room chairs this summer. But it was a wonderful one, nonetheless, and I'm overwhelmed by gratitude for all the new people I got a chance to meet along the way and the chance to sing a lot of Garland tunes and a gaggle of new songs, too, including "Tomorrow" (proving that it's never too late for the sun to come out) in a concert with the Cleveland Pops at Playhouse Square promoting their upcoming seasons.Read More